HAZARD — Nearly two years have passed since a collision on Combs Road sent Judge Leigh Anne Stephens on a coarse that led to eight surgeries, physical therapy and an abundance of time spent in the hospital, away from the courtroom. All the while, many throughout the community have worried for her well-being and wondered when she might return to work. Now, Judge Stephens is back, presiding over her position as District Judge; a position she was first elected to uphold in 2002 and has remained in charge of ever since.
When the wreck occurred in June of 2015, it was reported that Judge Stephens, along with a passenger in her vehicle, were transported to Hazard ARH to receive treatment for non life threatening injuries. However, details from the report also indicated that the collision was serious.
The Kentucky State Police news release from the crash stated that investigators at the scene determined that a 1997 Toyota Camry driven by Kevin Fugate, age 40 of Hazard, was traveling south on Combs Road. Fugate’s vehicle crossed into the northbound lane where it struck a 2011 Toyota Versa being operated by 55 year old Leigh Ann Stephens of Hazard. Leigh Ann Stephens, who is District Judge of Perry County, and a passenger in her vehicle, 53 year old Stephen Wireman of Ridgecrest, California, were transported to Hazard Appalachian Regional Hospital and admitted for treatment of non-life threatening injuries. A passenger in the Fugate vehicle, 42 year old Della Friley of Viper, was air lifted to University of Kentucky Medical Center where she remains in critical condition. Kevin Fugate was pronounced deceased at the scene by the Perry County Coroner’s Office. KSP reported that Fugate was driving under the influence.
Combs Road has seen many traffic tragedies happen over the years. For Judge Stephens, the two years after the wreck have resulted not only in multiple surgeries, but also in the amputation of her foot. She now is walking with a prosthetic in place.
Angela Reighard conducted an interview with Judge Stephens for WYMT, in which Stephens says she is getting around well and hopes to get back to her favorite activities. In the interview, Judge Stephens expressed thanks to all in the community who gave support throughout this process. She also illustrated the importance faith played in her journey back behind the bench.
“I would go to the chapel and write out prayer requests for people,” Stephens said in the interview. “I stuffed the box full! I had to tell the chaplains I need more paper. I stayed busy.”
During her absence, other judges stepped-in to help with cases in Perry District Court, including former Perry Circuit Judge Bill Engle. Stephens continues with physical therapy for now. Prior to becoming District Judge, Stephens had worked as an attorney. Four elections have passed since the first one she won for District Judge. In 2014, she was unopposed for the position.
Sam Neace can be reached at 606-629-3243 or on Twitter @HazardHerald.